The difficulties of undertaking good quality effectiveness research in palliative medicine are well documented. Much of the ethical literature in this area focuses on the vulnerability of the palliative care population. It is clear that a wider ethical approach will need to be used to justify research in the terminally ill. Some themes of ethical thought are underutilised in considering the ethics of palliative care research. Three arguments to justify the need for effectiveness research in palliative care should be highlighted: (1) there is evidence of an untapped altruism amongst the population of palliative care patients who would be keen to be involved in such research; (2) traditional Aristotelean and Thomistic virtue ethics would point to the need to gain knowledge in and of itself, but especially in palliative medicine for the benefit of patients: virtue also accrues in the acquisition of a stock of research experience which in turn makes further research feasible; (3) most compellingly, justice would dictate that palliative treatments are effective, that futile or useless treatments are avoided and that patients are not party to “n of 1” trials by default. The current state of the evidence base of effectiveness in palliative care leads us to the uncomfortable position where patients are in precisely the position of being unwitting participants in “n of 1” clinical trials by default, without their explicit consent.
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Competing interests: None.